When Is a Community Not a Community?

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by: Matt Rhodes

There’s a lot of talk about online research communities at the moment. At almost every event I go to people want to talk about using online communities for market research, often creating their own communities. And every week there seems to be the announcement of another brand launching such a community (this week it was the Mirror newspaper with their Mirror Mouthpiece).

It’s great to see so many brands recognising the power of online research communities. At FreshNetworks, we’ve been running them for a while now (FreshMinds, our parent company is an award-winning research agency in the UK) and even wrote a paper about earlier this yea (click here to read an earlier post about this). But looking at some of the online research ‘communities’ that exist, I’m not sure all of them actually are communities, rather than networks or panels of respondents.

There are a number of characteristics that define a community and these should be present in a true online research community. Some of the most pertinent include:

  1. About a common issue not individuals – A community is focused on a common or shared interest, issue, end point or goal; as a community member you are working with the other members to a common goal. That’s why, amongst other things, research communities are great for helping to create new ideas for products or services, having discussions on brand positioning, getting depth of understanding behind quantitative results and for deliberating. If you don’t have a common goal or purpose to the community, and a focus on, then you probably don’t have a community.
  2. Members discuss issues with each other – In a community, members talk and form relationships with each other. This isn’t a one-way exchange from brand to consumer, nor the two-way ‘conversation’ between these two. A real community is driven by the conversations between consumers – which the brand just watches. For research, these conversations are critical – they allow you to see how your consumers talk unprompted – what issues do they raise, what language do they use?
  3. Used for depth and breadth of qualitative comment – Because of the nature of communities, they make an ideal space to watch and lead discussions. They allow individuals to respond to questions in a thought-through manner and to review and comment on the thoughts of others. This offers a real depth and richness of qualitative comment and should be the heart of the community. It isn’t a place to just run quantitative surveys, but needs to be nurtured as you would with other qualitative techniques (like focus groups or interviews).
  4. Allows reflection and reviewing – A community is always on. Unlike issuing people with surveys you let them respond in their own time, then go back and see what contributions they made and add further to their original thoughts when they’ve had chance to reflect a little. This kind of reasoned response, done in a way that lets you analyse how people’s thoughts have changed, is a real opportunity for research. But to get this kind of reflection and reviewing you have to create a vibrant online community where members contribute and share.

A few of the online research ‘communities’ do not make the most of these criteria. They are using the new technology to deliver an old process, rather than offering a completely new service. This is a real shame as online communities offer the chance to really revolutionise research, especially qualitative. And this is something all brands should be ceasing.

Original Post: blog.freshnetworks.com/index.php/2008/06/11/when-is-a-community-not-a-community/